Friday, May 1, 2009
The terror of surgical masks
Yesterday I rode up six floors in an elevator with a small brown boy who was wearing wearing a surgical mask. Whether he was Latino or Indian or something else wasn't apparent, but I stood in the corner as far away as I could get. Would I have done the same if he were a white boy? I'm ashamed to say I don't know. Ingrained childhood racism is hard to shake entirely -- let alone fear of pandemics.
Last night I dreamed swine flu had overtaken the Chicago area and everyone wore surgical masks. This had me tossing and sweating, for I am a deaf person who reads lips -- who has to read lips in order to communicate. Suddenly I was unable to understand anyone. I could not deal with the waiter trying to take my order, with the salesclerk holding my credit card and shaking her head, with the police officer at the door of my car with his hand on his holster. Their masks prevented understanding. I was completely cut off from communication. I woke up in something very like a panic attack.
A friend of mine who is also deaf and a lipreader holds joint U.S. and Israeli citizenship. He was living in Tel Aviv when Iraq lofted Scuds into Israel during the 1991 Gulf war, and everyone wore gas masks during rocket alerts. He told me vividly of his discomfiture over not being able to follow spoken instructions, over being utterly in the dark about rapidly shifting events.
Now I truly understand how he felt.